Nobel Peace laureate recalls MAF evacuation amid ongoing death threats

Published: 25 Jan 2021

Dr Denis Mukwege

MAF partner and gynaecologist, Dr Denis Mukwege, has been protected by UN peacekeepers since a failed assassination attempt in 2012. Dr Mukwege recounts his life-saving evacuation by MAF in 1996, when war broke out in the DRC…

In the last twenty years, Dr Mukwege and team have treated around 85,000 women at Panzi Hospital in eastern DRC, who have survived rape and violent sexual assault – horrific weapons of the DRC war.

As a world leading specialist in the treatment of injuries caused by wartime sexual violence, Dr Mukwege continues to publicly condemn these atrocities and vows to get justice for the violated women whom he treats.

His calls to end impunity - which has previously protected the perpetrators of mass rape during the first (1996 – 1997) and second (1998 - 2003) DRC wars – have triggered death threats and attempts on his life.

Rescued by MAF

Dr Mukwege remembers the first time he was confronted by armed men during the outbreak of the first DRC war in 1996.

He was working at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which he founded, when soldiers stormed the building and threatened to seize vital equipment. When he refused out of concern for his patients, the soldiers accused him of siding with the rebels. The lives of Dr Mukwege and his family were in grave danger:

‘It was pure madness - soldiers killing for no reason. We thought it was the end, but I managed to get hold of Roland Storgren who worked for MAF Kenya. Two MAF planes were sent and there was a lot of drama when they landed. With God’s help, we managed to hide. All the soldiers gathered around a larger passenger plane that had just landed on the other side of the runway. This gave us the chance to rush on board the MAF plane - it was a miracle.’

Fighting for justice

Dr Mukwege is an advisor to the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council where he continues to use his international platform to call on world leaders to bring war criminals to justice:

‘In all the conflicts around the world, the use of rape as a weapon of war should not go unpunished. If we all stand up and say, “it is not acceptable,” I know this can be solved.’

‘MAF saved my life. I didn’t know how I would make it from Bukavu to somewhere safe, but with MAF, I was able to quit Bukavu and go! I was saved along with my baby girl and my boy whom I was pregnant with at that time. Thanks to MAF, we are all safe.’ Maguy – DRC war survivor and MAF evacuee

Maguy’s story

Maguy with her children

When war broke out in October 1996 in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), aid worker, Maguy, had to find a safe way out of Bukavu situated near the Rwandan border.

The married mother of a seven-month-old baby, with another one on the way, sensed growing panic around her as rebel forces moved in to take control of the DRC’s border.

As the war intensified and violence moved towards Bukavu, Maguy had to come up with an escape plan: 

‘The rebels were coming from Uvira and they were on their way to Bukavu. Everyone was working hard to get out of this town and go to a safer place. The only way to leave was to go on foot but I couldn’t make it - it was a desperate situation.’

Escaping on foot would be daunting for anyone, let alone a pregnant woman with her babe in arms. Desperate to find safety, she sought a more feasible alternative to escape the impending violence.

Her brother-in-law was a pastor who worked with missionaries in the area. He found out that an MAF evacuation flight was leaving the area soon.

Thankfully, there was enough room on the flight for Maguy and her baby but not her husband. He was forced to flee on foot, but only left his family once he was satisfied they would be flown to safety. It was a scary situation:

‘Thank God my sister’s family had to be evacuated because of her husband. Thank God I was also put on the list. We were evacuated with MAF from Bukavu to Niakunde because of the disorder in town. Thank God I got the opportunity to fly with MAF.’

‘Even now we don’t know where he is buried’

Eventually Maguy’s husband joined them, but even as a strong, young man, he barely survived the journey on foot through forests and hills.

Two days later, Maguy’s hometown of Bukavu was taken by the rebels. Maguy’s father-in-law was killed in the fighting and to this day, they don’t know where he’s buried:

‘Even now we don’t know where he is buried because they told us he was buried in a mass grave.’

So many people lost their lives. 

Thanks to MAF’s evacuation, Maguy and her family are now flourishing:

‘MAF saved my life. I didn’t know how I would make it from Bukavu to somewhere safe, but with MAF, I was able to quit Bukavu and go! I was saved along with my baby girl and my boy whom I was pregnant with at that time. Thanks to MAF, we are all safe.’

‘I praise God for the wonderful work that MAF is doing in Congo – they are really saving lives. They go where no one can go. They stay even when the situation gets worse. When everyone left the country, MAF stayed to save lives. God bless MAF and all who are supporting MAF.’

Today, Maguy works as a Deputy Programme Manager for a humanitarian charity. Maguy’s children are now in their twenties and her eldest daughter is studying at university.

Maguy shares her story with MAF’s Nick Frey in 2018:

Sobering DRC stats

Conflicts in the DRC have resulted in more than 5.4 million deaths between 1998 and 2008 – half of whom were children under five. This is the 'deadliest conflict since the second world war' (International Rescue Committee).

At the peak of the war, 45,000 lives were lost every month (The Guardian).

The UN currently has more than 12,200 peacekeepers in the DRC (BBC).

More than 5 million people have been displaced and 19.6 million are in need of humanitarian assistance (IRC).

DRC is ranked 175 out if 189 in the Human Development Index.